Mark Williams on Father Brown coming back to our screens and making the permanent move to Sussex
PUBLISHED: 14:40 19 January 2017 | UPDATED: 09:30 03 January 2018
Lewes-based Mark Williams worked with Glenn Close on 101 Dalmatians, achieved catchphrase status on The Fast Show and played Mr Weasley in the Harry Potter series. He's back on our television series this month in a new series of Father Brown. Jack Watkins spoke to him about the period detective series
Mark Williams chieved worldwide fame as Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter films, shared the big screen with Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians, and was part of one of the funniest turns in TV comedy The Fast Show. Yet I get the feeling nothing gives him as much satisfaction as his title role in the BBC period detective series Father Brown. First screened in January 2013 and returning this month for its fifth series it has been a worldwide hit. “We’re shown in 182 countries, we get Americans and Australians coming to the sets now, and I’ve met Russians and New Zealanders who really love it,” says Mark. “So do the Scandinavians. We watch their dark detective dramas and think ‘wow!’ But they’d prefer to be cheered up, thanks very much.”
The appeal isn’t hard to understand. Invariably shot in the summer, the golden Cotswold stone and lush greenery of the backdrops are deeply soothing. And the cast of regulars soon become loveably familiar, not just Mark’s redoubtable clergyman-cum-sleuth, but his gossiping secretary Bridgette McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack), society dame Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and her laddish chauffeur Sid (Alex Price), together with irascible Inspector Mallory (Jack Dean).
Then there’s the 1950s period setting. GK Chesterton’s original Father Brown stories were written in the early decades of the last century, but Mark thinks shifting them forward in time has added an extra dimension.
“The 1950s is such a fascinating decade. It’s a time when society is emerging from the war period and people are opening up enormously to new ideas. They want to get back to the old order, but things are never going to be the same. Young people have different attitudes and there’s more money around, so it’s not always about poverty. Women aren’t prepared to settle for things being the way they were. It’s a much more fluid decade than the 1960s, in my opinion. And – of course – the girls look great in the costumes and the cars are wonderful. I’m slightly envious about the cars though, as all I’ve got is a pushbike in the series.”
He says he landed the role without having to audition for it. “I was filming in Northern Ireland at Castle Crom for another BBC series, Blandings, playing the butler Beech. My agent rang saying she’d been talking to BBC Birmingham and that they’d offered me the part. I said: ‘Oh, great!’ thinking I’d been cast as a murderer or something, but I was lost for words when she said I was to play Father Brown. I knew instantly what I’d do with the role – just as I had done with Mr Weasley.”
It’s not the first time the tales have been adapted. Among the more familiar interpretations Alec Guinness played the Roman Catholic priest on the big screen in 1954 and Kenneth More played him on TV in the 1970s. Did Mark study their performances as part of his preparation? “No – in fact quite the opposite. I’d never seen the Alec Guinness film but after I did the first series I did watch it and a bit of the Kenneth More series, but we’re all radically different.”
It’s fair to say Mark has made the part entirely his own. It’s a beautifully understated piece of acting, full of quiet humour, puzzled frowns and gentle glances. “I don’t consciously do that,” he reflects. “It’s just that Father Brown is very empathetic with people. When the criminals are saying things like: ‘I didn’t mean to do it,’ in a way you are watching the passage of their feelings through the expressions in his face. And I’m absolutely convinced Chesterton would have appreciated the humour we’ve put in.”
He might also have respected the stoicism of the cast and crew. Shooting so many scenes outside on a tight budget and schedule puts them at the mercy of the British weather. “When it lashes down the Cotswold mud is very fine and slithery and it can be really difficult for the production guys to move things around. And the wind is not helpful for sound,” explains Mark. But then there’s the heat. He ruefully recalls shooting one episode in 36 degrees. “The crew were in singlets and sun hats, but I’m wearing a hat, a cassock, heavy trousers and boots, so that was difficult. I just have to zen out of it. It’s not just me. The girls are often in wool twinsets.”
Father Brown’s way of being “interested in everything” is a trait Mark shares off-screen. He was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and says he was always “interested in learning.” His home in Lewes is full of books and his taste is eclectic – if not eccentric – from a history of farming to divining and Russian criminal tattoos. Winning a school history prize aged 13, he requested a copy of RA Buchanan’s Industrial Archaeology. “Well, there you are. Alea iacta est (the die is cast), as Julius Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon,” he laughs. “Industry was the lifeblood of the area. My granddad worked at the Austin plant and practically every other garage had a lathe. As soon as I was 15 I was out working as an electrician’s mate.”
He put that knowledge of industrial heritage to good use years a few years back when he made three documentaries on the subject for the BBC: Mark Williams on the Rails; Industrial Revelations; and More Industrial Revelations. “Somebody once called me the ‘new age Fred Dibnah,’” he says.
But Mark had academic leanings too. He went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he read English Language and Literature. But he’d always been interested in acting. He appeared in several Oxford Union Dramatic Society productions, alongside Imogen Stubbs and Hugh Grant, before turning professional after graduation.
Carving out a reputation for his performances on stage, Mark appeared in several Royal Shakespeare Company plays, but describes acting as “not so much a career as a series of jobs strung together by hope and fear.” Even into his mid-30s he admits he felt deep anxiety about his prospects. Yet he seems to have successfully juggled the stage with film and TV work. “To be honest for a long time I was better known in America, whereas with the BBC it would be ‘who’s he?’”
He was in The Borrowers, Shakespeare in Love and fondly recalls working with Glenn Close on the set of 101 Dalmatians.
“One of the funniest times was Glenn, Hugh Laurie, John Shrapnel and I trapped in the back of a van while shooting a scene. All the cameras were set up at the end of the van, meaning we couldn’t get out between takes. We spent the whole afternoon in the van cracking jokes and telling stories. Glenn and I still talk. She’s great. She’s from the theatre and is what we call ‘a trouper’. And she’s got one of the funniest laughs. It should be bottled.”
A few years later he was in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, dyeing his hair ginger and getting stopped by Stephen Fry in Soho, who peered at him and asked: “Is that for professional or sexual reasons?” Appearing in seven Potter films was fun, helped by the fact that Julie Walters, playing his on-screen wife, hails from the West Midlands like him.
On TV his work with Alexei Sayle, Angus Deayton and Paul Whitehouse drew domestic attention to his comedic talents. But he is emphatically an actor – not a comic – and proud to be regarded as such. A lovely man to talk to – and full of insight into his work – the drawbridge comes up quickly if he senses you are trying to probe his personal life. All he will say is that he is married “with a bolt-on family, with one biological child and half shares in two others.” He made the permanent move to Sussex after sitting in the beer garden of the Jolly Sportsman in East Chiltington “looking at the Downs and thinking: ‘I could live here.’ The children go to school in Brighton and we shop, eat out and have friends there, so it’s the best of both worlds really.”
He refuses to speculate how much longer Father Brown will run. “I do think the new series has a life of itself. And they are always great fun to make,” he says, his enthusiasm bubbling to the surface once more. “We have vintage fire engines, ambulances, brewers’ drays and in this series a new female character, Bunty, with a very fast car. Sometimes you go on set and it’s a case of: ‘What have we got today?!’”
A new 14-episode series of Father Brown starts on BBC1 on 2 January 2017.
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